Good Friday Agreement: The 20 Year Anniversary

Published: 12/04/2018 and written by P Smith

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2018 marks a monumental year for many reasons, with plenty of celebrations and anniversaries taking place for a whole variety of events. This April marks 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in Northern Ireland, bringing to an end 30 years of what was known as The Troubles. Short term loan provider, Mr Lender, investigated just how The Troubles impacted on the economy of Northern Ireland and what costs are still incurred today as a result.

Good Friday Agreement

The Troubles

In 1968, the people of Northern Ireland saw the start of what was to become 30 years of political unrest and violence, until a ceasefire was agreed and the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. It all began after years of tension came to a head at a civil rights march on 5th October 1968 in Londonderry. The majority group, the Unionists – who were mostly protestant – wanted to remain part of the UK, while the minority groups, the Nationalists and Republicans – who were mostly catholic – wanted to become part of the Republic of Ireland. A number of other factors contributed to the rising tensions in Northern Ireland, but it has been reported that the conflict was predominantly a territorial one, and not one of religion.

According to the BBC, the UK government stepped in in 1969 after a year of rising tension and violence between the Unionists and Nationalists. British troops were sent to Northern Ireland to try and restore order to the region, and by 1972 the British government suspended the Northern Ireland parliament and imposed direct rule.

A number of talks and meetings took place in the years that followed – many of which were unsuccessful. After years of violence and bloodshed from the Security Forces, Nationalists and Unionists, a ceasefire was announced in 1994. Mainstream Republican leaders recognised that it was impossible to win the ‘long war’ which had taken place, and the British Army realised that conflict couldn’t be won by military means alone.

In 1996, cross-party talks began. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) agreed to “accept power sharing, including with former paramilitaries who were committed to the peace process.” The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, and while issues remained and The Troubles continued for some – with the deadliest bombing of The Troubles taking place four months after the Agreement was signed – the level of violence decreased dramatically.

During The Troubles, more than 3,600 people died as a result of violence from all sides (Republicans and Nationalists, Unionists and security forces to name just a few). On top of this, more than 50,000 people are thought to have been injured or maimed, while many others experienced psychological damage as a result of the violence.

Economic Cost of The Troubles

In 2016, the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre carried out research into the ‘Cost of Division’ in Northern Ireland. The report investigated just how the divide between the Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland affected the economy and the additional costs incurred.

According to the report, as much as £833.8million per year is spent as a result of the divide in society. The report took into account a number of different factors and estimated a minimum and maximum cost for each sector:

  Estimated Potential Cost of Division
Sector Minimum Maximum
Policing and Justice £312,200,000 £550,300,000
Education £16,500,000 £95,000,000
Health £36,100,000 £36,100,000
Community Relations £24,300,000 £35,000,000
Housing £2,500,000 £2,500,000
Transport and Infrastructure £600,000 £600,000
Sports and Leisure £3,700,000 £106,700,000
Governance £7,600,000 £7,600,000
Total cost £403,500,000 £833,800,000

Crime in Northern Ireland is now around the midway point when compared to the rest of the UK – around 58 reported crimes for every 1,000 people (the Metropolitan Police see 90 reported crimes in comparison), however the cost is far higher. The report states “the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] is the most expensive police force in the UK on a per capita basis”. The PSNI reportedly costs £600 per person, while the Metropolitan Police costs just £360 per person.

The report states the “cost of delivering policing services in Northern Ireland is influenced by a number of factors including the current level of threat from terrorism and legacy issues (including large estate costs and very significant ongoing pension costs)”. While the cost of policing is high in Northern Ireland, the report states it shouldn’t be assumed that the government could save money by making cuts in this area as the costs relate to ‘potentially long and unavoidable costs’ such as pensions.

Another area which brings an extra cost to the economy is the prison system. The cost per prisoner in Northern Ireland equates to around £58,000. In comparison, the cost per prisoner in England and Wales is £36,000. The high cost is reportedly linked to ‘division related factors’ such as housing current paramilitary prisoners, and ‘an infrastructure developed for the period of civil unrest’. Additional costs are also incurred as a result of having to segregate prisoners based on their differing political and religious stances. The costs associated with the “conflict related” prison population is believed to be around £4.1million.

Other costs related to the justice system include £7million for the Home Protection Scheme which “provides physical security to individuals who fall within certain occupations in public life and also are under a high level of threat”. There are also 53 peace walls still in place in Belfast, which cost an estimated £65,000 per year to maintain.

The health sector also experiences higher costs as a result of The Troubles. According to further research carried out by Ulster University, around 27% of individuals diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (around 18,000 people), experience this as a result of “conflict related traumatic events”. The direct costs associated with these 27% of cases, including medication, hospital visits, social workers, psychiatrists, etc. total to around £10.3million each year.

Threats to the Good Friday Agreement

When the Good Friday Agreement was initially signed, a number of changes and guarantees were made in a bid to keep the peace in Northern Ireland. As part of the agreement, it was said that the Northern Irish government can only work if both Unionists and Republicans are able to work together. In recent years this was in the form of the DUP and Sinn Fein. After the 2017 General Election, in which Theresa May needed to secure the backing of a second party, the Irish government was essentially thrown into turmoil. As both parties need to be on equal footing in order to function within the Irish government at Stormont, the favouring of the DUP in British government meant they then had an advantage over Sinn Fein which many saw as unfair.

It was also stated as part of the Good Friday Agreement that the British and Irish governments need to remain impartial in negotiations. The role the DUP then played in securing the Conservative party a majority vote in the General Election then put this part of the Agreement under threat. A number of other factors lead to the resulting collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly, including the failure of a renewable heating scheme, but many eyebrows and questions were raised when a deal was agreed upon between the Conservative government and the DUP.

Brexit has also had an immense impact on the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. As the Republic of Ireland is not a part of the UK, the Good Friday Agreement stated that those born in Northern Ireland were allowed to be choose to be either a UK citizen, an Irish citizen, or both if they wished. While the UK remained part of the EU, this agreement wasn’t put under threat as citizens were members of the EU regardless of which citizenship they chose. However, once the UK officially leaves the EU, it isn’t certain how this agreement will work in practice – could those born in Northern Ireland choose to be an EU citizen, and a non-EU citizen simultaneously?

The EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michael Barnier, says “more detailed discussions are needed on how Brexit will affect the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland.” The role Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement plays in Brexit negotiations is an issue which remains at the forefront of ongoing talks. How this will effectively pan out without disrupting the peace in Northern Ireland is unsure, but keeping the peace in the region is high on the list of priorities for all those involved.

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